The Conservatives urgently need to talk to us about everything except Brexit
As Damian Green, the prime minister’s former deputy, told The Independent, the next election will not be decided on Brexit, so his party needs to match Labour’s attractive domestic programme
That the Conservative Party has not lost its mind altogether is demonstrated by the number of its leading people who took the Labour Party conference seriously. Instead of mocking the statist and antique nostrums of the far left, which would have been the standard Tory reflex, Damian Green, the prime minister’s former deputy, told The Independent: “The Labour conference reminded us as a party that in the end elections are won or lost on domestic issues.”
George Freeman, the former head of Theresa May’s policy board, has said: “Unless we recognise and respect the very real grievances Corbyn is tapping into and set out bold Conservative solutions, the tide will continue to turn against us.”
Three current cabinet ministers have told our political editor they agree that the Conservatives need to focus on subjects other than Brexit – although they, possibly wisely, do not want to say so publicly for fear of prompting new headlines about party splits.
Mr Green is right that there was an energy and coherence to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s programme set out in Liverpool. Labour may have been weak, confused and ambiguous on Brexit, but that was better than the open civil war on the subject we are about to witness in Birmingham. At least Mr Corbyn managed to say, almost under his breath, “all options are on the table” – including a referendum to give the people the final say – in his big speech.
What ought to frighten intelligent Conservatives was that Labour appeared to have answers to some of the pressing problems that worry people regardless of what they think about leaving the EU. Mr Corbyn’s plan for a levy on second homes; Mr McDonnell’s ideas for giving workers 10 per cent of shares in their employer; the party’s promise of free childcare for all two-, three- and four-year-olds – these are policies that strike a chord with millions of people who feel they are being held back for making the best of their lives and of their children’s prospects.
As Mr Green said, “the next election will not be decided on Brexit”. Whether we are in or out of the EU, voters will be looking at what the parties can offer for their lives and their children’s futures.
It will not be enough for the Conservatives to say that Labour’s plans are unaffordable, or unworkable, or “too extreme”. There is a mood in favour of spending more on public services, and a willingness to consider “radical” solutions even if they are associated in Tory minds with the failures of the Labour government in the 1970s.
In particular, the shortcomings of some privatised utilities has increased public support for nationalisation. The Independent doubts that a mere change of ownership is likely to improve services, but the Conservatives need to engage in the proper work of persuasion rather than falling back on kneejerk slogans.
Above all, if the Conservative Party cannot offer young people the realistic prospect of a home of their own, then it might as well write off the next election now. That requires a huge effort of policymaking and actual delivery. It will be difficult, and the draining distraction of Brexit makes it harder still, but it is absolutely necessary.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
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